Nero Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (A.D. 37–68), otherwise known as Nero, is probably the most notorious and well known of all the emperors of Rome. Details from the tyranny and brutality of his reign are still familiar to us today thanks, in part, to Roman historians, such as Tacitus (A.D. 56–120) and Suetonius (A.D. 69–140).
An emperor like Nero provided writers of the time with all the ammunition necessary for a dramatic and entertaining story. However, if we take a slightly closer look at these contemporary sources, we find that the portrait presented is actually one of a truly multi-facetted man and one that might reveal a few unexpected twists along the way.
Nero the boy emperor
Nero became emperor of Rome at the tender age of sixteen. Throughout the early years of his reign he was heavily reliant on the advice of his tutor, the Stoic philosopher Seneca, and particularly his mother, the ruthless Agrippina the Younger. It was believed by many that Agrippina had poisoned her husband, the emperor Claudius and Nero’s adoptive father so that her son could rule Rome instead.
Once the teenage Nero was hailed as emperor, Agrippina took the reins. But as Nero grew older he became irritated by his mother’s controlling behavior and hostility grew between them. Both Tacitus and Suetonius tell us that one evening, in a desperate attempt to regain Nero’s favor and her power, Agrippina attempted to seduce her own son when he was drunk. The sources vary as to whether this seduction was successful.
When examining Nero’s future behavior and his rapid descent into tyranny, it is worth considering the environment in which he had been brought up and the extent of the immorality which surrounded him in his formative years.
Nero the liberator
One of the often-forgotten facts about Nero’s reign is that in A.D. 67 while attending the Isthmian Games in Greece, he announced that the entire Greek province would be given its freedom from Roman taxation and administration.
Greece had been under the Roman rule since the fall of Corinth in 146 B.C., so this pronouncement brought an end to over 200 years of subjugation. As a result, Nero was adored by the Greek people. An inscription has been discovered in Boeotia, referring to him as ‘Zeus the Liberator’.
Nero was also loved by the people of Rome, specifically the lower classes, because they viewed him as a generous ruler. Early in his reign, he promised to model his rule on that of Augustus. He lowered heavy rates of taxation and also increased the amount of free grain issued to the poor. But what they truly loved him for was his generosity in providing public games and entertainment on an immense scale.
Nero the entertainer
All of the historical sources refer to Nero’s passion for a number of artistic pursuits. In A.D. 60, he set up the Neronian Games, inspired by the Greek games-festivals. His public festival included plays and athletic contests as well as the donation of lavish gifts of food and money to the poor.
Nero himself took part in various games-festivals across Greece and even attended the Olympic Games in A.D. 67, after convincing the organizers to hold the event in a year which was convenient for him. He competed as an actor, singer, lyre-player, and chariot-racer and apparently he won each of his contests!
The sources tell us that his particular passion was for singing, which he took very seriously. Suetonius says that he went everywhere accompanied by a vocal-tutor and that he also suffered from stage-fright before many of his performances. However, his nerves did not stop him from regularly giving performances lasting many hours, during which no one was permitted to leave.
Nero the big spender
Despite his reputation among the working classes for being a generous ruler, much of Nero’s expenditure was spent on himself and his lifestyle. In June A.D. 64, a terrible fire destroyed vast areas of Rome (some of the nobility spread rumors that Nero had actually started it himself).
Soon after the disaster, Nero ordered an enormous new palace complex to be built on land cleared by the fire. The palace was named the ‘Domus Aurea’ (Golden Palace) and became one of the most lavish Roman structures ever built. It even included a large circular, revolving dining-room with a ceiling from which panels opened to shower dinner guests with gifts.
Suetonius gives us many details of Nero’s excessive spending. He notes that Nero never wore the same clothes twice; when he went fishing, he used a golden net strung with purple strings; he rarely traveled with a train of fewer than 1000 carriages and even his pack-mules had their hooves shod with silver shoes. Apparently, Nero often declared, ‘True gentlemen always throw their money around’.
Nero the brutal tyrant
Nero is perhaps most well known for his cruelty and brutality. On the public stage, his punishments for those who confessed to being Christian were shockingly violent. Tacitus tells us that, under Nero’s orders, Christian prisoners were either crucified, torn to pieces by dogs or set alight and used as torches at night. These terrifying executions were often held as public events in Rome’s Circus Maximus.
In the later years of Nero’s reign, there were two separate plots by the nobility of Rome to murder him, both of which he discovered before they came to fruition. Paranoia soon set in and he began a targeted and ruthless massacre of various noble families, whom he believed to be a threat to his life. Even the children of these families were exiled and then later murdered. Nero’s brutality was also directed towards members of his own family.
Having become exasperated with his mother’s behavior, he resolved to have her killed. But it took three attempted poisonings and an attempted drowning before he eventually had her stabbed to death. Suetonius tells us that Nero also poisoned his adoptive brother Britannicus, drugged his aunt Domitia Lepida and violently murdered both his wives, Octavia and Poppaea.
It is, therefore, not without good reason that Nero is known as one of the most brutal of all Roman rulers. However, it is important to remember that this is just one aspect of this complex and inimitable individual. If we consider details from all of the sources, we are presented with a passionate yet violent young man, the son of a depraved and over-bearing mother and a profligate ruler, loathed by the nobility and loved by the ordinary people of Rome.